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ALL QUESTIONS concerning the ambiguous world of Daumier sculpture have been snatched away from a dusty drawer of art history and neatly placed in a revolutionary exhibition at the Fogg Museum. Rather than presenting only assuredly authentic pieces, the curators have invited viewers to join in their game of evaluation by including in the show works of dubious origin. You judge the merit of a cast; you detect a forgery.
What sculpture did Daumier really model? How does bronze cast differ from the original clay? Scarcity of documents about Daumier sculpture create problems for the historian. None of the sculptures were cast in bronze during Daumier's life; since then many casts have been made from the clay originals and works of unknown origin have appeared.
The collectors of the exhibition lead the viewers on their search. Different editions of the same bust, side by side, tantalize the eye with slight variations in a textured surface or a twisted bowtie. The show makes you look at sculpture in a new way. Among the crowd of gesticulating roguish faces, you try to distinguish Daumier's style and conception.
Nobby foreheads and fishlike smiles of a large group of busts portraying the politicians of the Louis Philippe government dominate the exhibit. Here Daumier's style stands out. Pinching the features into blobs and twists, he skillfully expresses a particular miser or nearsighted fool. Originally molded in unbaked clay and painted as studies for satirical lithographic portraits, these small caricatures look like papier mache puppet heads. Four of the 36 original brown heads are exhibited here for the first time in the United States. The other 32 politicians appear at the Fogg in bronze or terra cotta casts.
"Podenas," one of the funniest heads, stretches to a peak in a tuft of hair. A foldable top lip falls to a point, the mountainous nose above and a wing collar binding neckless jowls threaten to envelop the pyramidal brain. Mouths snarl from monstrous faces, others just venture a gawky grin. Yet Daumier models even the most hideous mask with humor.
THE FRENCHMAN'S sculptural imagination spans from serious to comic, from a relief of suffering refugees to a statue of the bizarre "Ratapoil," in a rippling tail coat, who symbolizes the evils of the Bonaparte government. It sweeps the eye around its angular limbs jabbing the air with elbow, beard, and a cane. Questions of authenticity begin with a group of bronze figures that resemble the bourgeois types of the Daumier lithographs, but are of unknown origin. The incredibly detailed catalogue points to subtle inconsistencies in style of these sculptures, hinting that they may have been copied from Daumier's lithographs by an amateur artist.
But it is easy to spot most of the other pieces possibly misattributed to Daumier. You see that the dramatic self-portrait bust doesn't look like anything else he did. According to the catalogue, Carrier-Belleuse, a friend of Daumier, probably made it, but no one is sure. Hair tossed like a conductor's, hollowed eyes, this face is an idealized version of the artist, whom a nearby photograph reveals as a fat, distinguished gentleman. It would be inappropriate irony that Daumier sculpt himself with none of the humor with which he depicts others.
The show leaves out no detail concerning the sculpture. The poster and catalogue are decorated even with an x-ray of a bronze edition of jaunty Ratapoil. White lines indicate the density of the metal and tubular inner supports. It suggests the complexiy of the technical study done on each piece, while weaving its own oddly beautiful pattern.
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